In space, no-one can hear you sing: An interview with John Barrowman, Doctor Who sidekick, Captain Jack Harkness

 In space, no-one can hear you sing – which, in John Barrowman’s case, is a great pity.    The star of top London and Broadway musicals, Pantomime and pro-celebrity TV show ‘Dancing on Ice’ can now be seen in the revamped ‘Doctor Who’, airing on the Sci-Fi Channel from March 17.     During a rare break in his schedule, John Barrowman talks to Carole Gordon about joining the iconic science fiction show, the price of Daleks, his new ice-dancing career – and his secret hobby . . .



Landing the role of intergalactic con-man and reluctant hero, Captain Jack Harkness, was a huge thrill for Barrowman.

“It was like a childhood dream, because I’d grown up watching the show,” he says with obvious excitement.   “I’ve loved the show even from when I lived in Glasgow.  My first actual episode that I recall was about the Autons, the shop dummies which were in the first episode of the new series.”

And the evil Autons gave the young John Barrowman a distinct aversion to window-shopping. 

“My mother used to have to wrap me up in her coat when we would walk along Sauchiehall Street, the main shopping street in Glasgow, because I wouldn’t walk past the windows with shop dummies in them!”

‘Doctor Who’ has always had an extensive American following.   But what will the American viewers make of the new show?   Barrowman has absolutely no doubts. 

“I think those fans who are my age and older will come immediately to ‘Doctor Who’ and I think they’ll have a great love for it, as the ‘Whovian’ fans in the UK have.  It has every element that speaks to the kids and also speaks to the adults.  The kind of subliminal stuff goes over the kids’ heads and hits the adults in the face – that’s the only way I can describe it and that’s why the series works so brilliantly.”

What about the British humour?  Barrowman is unconcerned about the specifically British references.   It doesn’t matter if the American audience doesn’t get them, he says.

“But,” he continues firmly, “I absolutely think they will get them because shows like ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ and ‘The Office’ have been great successes in America.  So they do understand British humour, and that’s why Americans love the Brits so much – it’s something quirky and different from what they are used to.”

The TV viewers aren’t the only fans of the show; Barrowman says that the entire cast and crew have grown up with the various incarnations of ‘Doctor Who’ and have loved the show since they were children.   And, it seems, everyone is trying to get in on this successful act.    

“Special effects people are fighting to be involved,” Barrowman says.   “They are banging down the door.  I have got people who write to me and send me treatment scripts to pass on to Russell [T Davies, writer] because they want to be involved with this show.  It’s a huge, huge, huge, huge, big deal!”

Captain’s log

Asked to describe Captain Jack for the American audience, Barrowman doesn’t equivocate.

“I would describe him as he is.  He’s a bisexual rogue!   And if the American audience finds that difficult to comprehend, ‘Get over it!’   That’s one of the great things about Captain Jack.   It’s never really said in the script that he’s bisexual, but all the innuendo and all the jokes – it’s clearly evident that he is.” 

Barrowman thinks the younger audience in particular won’t have any issue with Jack’s flexible sexuality.

“You know,” he says thoughtfully, “kids nowadays are smarter than their parents and the parents can be uptight about certain stuff.  The kids – it doesn’t really faze them or bother them and that’s what I think is great.  The British public have accepted Jack with open arms and warmly, and I hope the American public do also.”

In the final episode, ‘The Parting of the Ways’, Jack kisses both Rose and The Doctor goodbye, a scene which barely raised a ripple of comment when the episode aired in the UK.    This was, Barrowman stresses, because it wasn’t done in a sensational manner.   

“It wasn’t like, ‘Ooh, Jack is snogging The Doctor!’  The whole context of the script was Jack was saying goodbye to two people that he loved.   If I am at the airport saying goodbye to my mother and father, I would kiss them both in the same way.  That’s why I kissed Rose and the Doctor in the same way because I wanted them to see that there was a love for both of them, an equal love, rather than kind of a sexual thing going on.”

Captain Jack Harkness joins the show in the ninth episode, ‘The Empty Child’, set in Second World War London during the Blitz.   A former Time Agent, Jack has been travelling the universe, conning people to get what he needs to survive.     But he is missing two years of his memory, erased by the Agents he used to work for.  

“So there’s two years of Jack’s life that nobody knows anything about and this is what he is searching to find.   [From] the final episode, ‘The Parting of the Ways’ in ‘Doctor Who’, to the first episode of ‘Torchwood’ [the spin-off show that Barrowman will star in later this year], you find out things that have happened to Jack that kind of put him on a new plane.”  

Jack is something of a maverick character, brimming with confidence and bravado – until he meets The Doctor and his life as a con-man is transformed.   In the final episode of the season, he confesses to The Doctor that he thinks he was “better off as a coward”.    Jack was, Barrowman says, doing things for selfish reasons, and that makes him a coward – but he can and does change.

“The reason he said he was better off as a coward was because he didn’t have to deal with emotions.   Actually there’s a little sense of irony in the statement because he actually is the better person now and he knows that.   He knows that a hero has a whole lot of responsibility on his shoulders, and that is what he is now being classified as – a hero – because he’s going to help save the lives of his two friends.”

But it’s not all plain sailing for Jack Harkness.    In ‘The Parting of the Ways’, he is killed fighting a rearguard action against the Daleks on a space station in the 51st century.   This naturally came as a shock to Barrowman.

“When I read the script and I saw that he died, I just went, ‘Oh, I’m not in it any more’.  I actually paused.  I was in my office reading it and I thought, ‘Damn it!  Damn it!‘.   Then all of a sudden I turned the page and I was like ‘Yes!’   He comes back to life!”

Barrowman understands why it was necessary for Jack to be parted from Rose and The Doctor at the end of the season.    Christopher Eccleston had decided to leave the show and, with David Tennant stepping into the role as the tenth Doctor, it was important for the new lead to establish his relationship with his companion.   And, of course, the strange process of the ninth Doctor ‘morphing’ into the tenth was totally alien to Rose. 

“Rose had never experienced regeneration,” Barrowman explains.   “Whereas Jack, knowing Time Lords and Time Agents and all that kind of stuff, his reaction would have been, ‘Yeah, so what?   He regenerated, let’s get on with it.

                                                       Jack and Rose

Even though Jack has been brought back from the dead, he won’t feature in the second season of the new ‘Doctor Who’.   The character made such an impression on both the audience and the producers that he will be heading up a spin-off show, ‘Torchwood’, due to start filming in April.      The show will feature three other regular characters, including Gwen Cooper, played by Eve Myles, as Jack’s female counterpart.

Barrowman is thrilled about this project too.    “I am just totally so excited about it,” he says.  “The script is really good.”  

Described as a darker, sexier, more adult science fiction show, ‘Torchwood’ focuses on a renegade team investigating human and alien crime, and extraterrestrial technology that has fallen to Earth.   After filming the spin-off, Barrowman will be returning to ‘Doctor Who’ for the third season, with David Tennant continuing to play The Doctor.   The two met while Barrowman was appearing in the pantomime “Cinderella” during the winter.

“When he came to my dressing room, I actually looked up and in my head I went, ‘Oh my god, it’s Doctor Who!’  It was bizarre!  I said to him, ‘David, you’re much more handsome in person than you are on television’ and his reply was, ‘We’re gonna get along just fine!’  I’m sure we’re going to have a good time.  Billie [Piper, who plays Rose] likes him and I can judge if Billie likes him, I think I’m going to like him.”

The Music Man

Although Barrowman’s career has moved away from musical theatre for the time being, there are still roles he covets.

“What I’d love to do,” he says, “is have a new musical written by Lloyd Webber and produced by Cameron Mackintosh because I enjoy working for both of those people and I think they treat their people very well.  And I’d love for them to redo ‘Sunset Boulevard’, because I did thoroughly enjoy doing that.”

He was asked to appear in ‘Spamalot’ in the UK, but his packed TV and film schedule prevented him taking the role.  

In what little spare time he has, he works with young people as a presenter at awards ceremonies for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards Scheme and runs drama workshops (The Dreamers’ Workshop) in the US with his business partner, Beverly Holt.

“We go to colleges and High Schools and give a week-long theatre workshop, but because I know not everybody is going to be involved in theatre and television, the workshop is about teaching life skills through theatre skills and to teach people to deal with diversity and difference in a better way.   They’ve been hugely successful.”

Clan Barrowman

Born in Glasgow, Barrowman moved to Joliet, Illinois with his family when he was a child.   Occasionally, his distinctive American accent disappears behind a broad Glaswegian brogue.

“As a kid people used to make fun of the Scottish accent.  So I learned how to speak American and in a way it’s a defence mechanism.   But when I’m with my family, I speak Scottish.  I kind of describe it as being like somebody who is a Hispanic-American.  At home they speak Spanish and outside they can speak perfect English.  My languages are both English, just one has a different accent than the other.”

Howls of laughter echo down the telephone line when it is suggested that perhaps his Scottish accent becomes more pronounced when he is angry.   But he readily agrees.

“Loads of people have said that to me, that when I do get angry, the Scottish just kind of comes out!”

Dancing on Ice

Barrowman has recently added to his skills by taking part in the pro-celebrity TV ice dance competition, ‘Dancing on Ice’.  The show saw the return of World and Olympic champions, Torvill and Dean, as trainers of the celebrity skaters.   Partnered by former Junior World Champion, Olga Sharutenko, Barrowman was controversially voted off the show in the fourth week, despite having received consistently high marks from the professional judges for his exuberant routines.

Undeterred, and having thoroughly enjoyed learning this new discipline, Barrowman intends to continue ice-dancing – but only in the partnership with Olga Sharutenko that  he has dubbed “Team Barrow-Tenko”. 

“I can say that you will see Team Barrow-Tenko in the future,” he says emphatically.  “I can’t reveal where, but two companies have approached me and I have said that I will only do it if Olga is involved.”

The Barrowman Collection

His early exit from ‘Dancing on Ice’ had a silver lining – in the shape of some spare time to relax, read scripts for ‘Torchwood’, and enjoy his collection of ‘Doctor Who’ memorabilia.     To this collection he has added items he was given from the set, and others that he “borrowed”.

“I was given a few things!   I tell a fib though.   I actually did steal some of the gun pellets that I shot the Daleks with. I have about eight of those,” he confesses with a laugh.    “I also have, given to me by the props department, the dummy mock-up gun which was used as the prototype for Captain Jack’s ‘squareness gun’.  That’s locked away for the future.    I may sell it at some point but I probably would do it for a charity.   I also have the wristband that was his [Jack’s] ‘alien tech’ and I have a couple of Daleks.”

Not to mention a Tardis or two.

“Yes, I have two, plural Tardii?  Tardises?”    More laughter.   “I have one original one that was a prop that was made for the ‘Doctor Who’ launch and it’s a light. They were on the tables at the first ‘Doctor Who’ episode launch.   And I have one that was made for me by a model-maker.    I would love to get a Dalek, a real life-size one, but they are very expensive, they cost £16,000 [cUS$ 28,000] to build.  At the moment I have smaller versions.”

Sadly, Barrowman says he can’t get hold of a defabricator, the clothes-dissolving gizmo which appears in the ‘Doctor Who’ episode ‘Bad Wolf’ and which, to quote Captain Jack, “Does exactly what it says on the tin.”

He laughs.   “I don’t know that I can get one that really works.  What a great way to change clothes, huh?   Stick it out your front door and every time somebody walks by that you fancy, you just defabricate them!”

As well as his ‘Doctor Who’ pieces, Barrowman reveals that he has a collection of Matchbox cars from the 1970s and 1980s.   Then, raucous whoops of laughter come down the telephone line before he makes a major confession.

“I don’t collect them any more, but in the late 80s, early 90s I was a collector of Barbies and Kens!” he chuckles.   “But they all had to be related to television shows.   I have the Mulder and Scully Barbie; I have the Sunny and Cher Barbie; I have the Barbie and Ken as Dorothy and the Scarecrow.  They have to be related to television and film.  I have loads of those!”

Perhaps there should be a “Team Barrow-Tenko” Barbie and Ken?

“Oh, that would be so great!” he agrees with enthusiasm.  “I think there actually might be a Captain Jack doll in the pipeline.  I did a photo session at the BBC the other day.   They asked to do a 360 photograph of me and that’s what they do when they’re going to make a doll.   They said, ‘Can you do some Captain Jack poses?'”  Barrowman gives a sexy laugh.   “I said, ‘Well, Captain Jack poses I don’t think are appropriate for children!”

Maybe not, but just as ‘Doctor Who’ has crossed generations for the last forty years, and the ninth Doctor and Rose were an immediate hit with viewers of all ages, so Captain Jack has delighted adults and children alike.   As he continues his wild adventures, who knows what might happen next – Captain Jack singing in space perhaps?    What would the Daleks make of that?! 


© Carole Gordon   March 2006  


John Barrowman’s Official Website:

IMDB entry:

BBC Doctor Who site:



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